If you’re over the age of 40 and still working at an advertising agency, you might want to start planning your next career move now. Ageism is rife in the communications business, and ever younger employees are feeling its effect, warn industry insiders and former employees.
“They actually are pushing people out of the industry at 45,” said Eric McPherson, who is 44.
He spent his career working in automotive advertising and was laid off in November.
“I started to look around, and I’m like, ‘Wait, hold on, there’s no one in my age group. Where’s everybody going?'”
McPherson is among a growing number of young professionals who have been aged out of an industry that’s thirsty for fresh ideas and younger talent willing to work for less.
“People are looking at my resumé, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s got lots of experience.’ And they’re also just not willing to pay what the experience is worth; they’re looking to pay half,” said McPherson about his struggle to find a full-time job.
Not like other jobs
The Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA), the professional association for Canadian advertising, marketing, and public relations firms, surveyed more than 4,000 agency employees between November 2017 and January 2018 and the results suggest the industry is young.
In its diversity and inclusion survey, which it conducted online for internal use, the ICA found that 40 per cent of people working in the sector are between 20 and 30 years old.
Just 15 per cent of agency employees are between 40 and 50, and only 10 per cent are 51 or older.
Compare that with the latest Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey, which found that workers age 50 and over make up 33 per cent of the national workforce.
“We know we’re behind the national picture,” admits ICA president Scott Knox.
Older employees expect higher salaries
Knox believes two things contribute to ageism in the business: cost and the demands of clients.
In this digital age, clients are constantly looking for what’s new and fresh, he says.
They especially want to target their advertising at millennials, so are more likely to hire an agency staffed by younger people to do their marketing.
“They’re trying to bring new consumers into the market,” said Knox of the clients he’s dealt with.
“They just want to know: ‘What do the young people want?’ Unfortunately, our industry gets trapped in that.”
As agencies battle to retain clients by doing more for less money, it also becomes difficult to keep experienced employees who expect higher salaries.
“‘Can I really afford you? Can I really afford to have this much expertise on my books?'” Knox says some agencies ask themselves.
‘They put youth on a pedestal’
But career transition consultant Julia Moulden says agencies themselves are driving the demand for younger employees, not clients.
“They put youth on a pedestal and show older people the door,” said Moulden, who’s the author of Ripe: Rich, Rewarding Work After 50.
Along with nabs, a charity that supports the health and well-being of people in the advertising, marketing and communications industry, Moulden started a workshop in 2015 called nabs ripe for people whose careers in the sector have come to an abrupt end.
“These are people who have been very successful in their careers and are blindsided by this,” said Moulden, who teaches participants to network effectively and use their skills and experience to transition to a new career.
There’s a waiting list for the two-day course, which is now offered across Canada.
“It’s nice to be here with all these people, and just hear their experience and be able to expand my network,” said 46-year-old Joanne Begg, who participated in a nabs ripe workshop held recently in Toronto.
Begg was laid off late last year from her marketing job.
“It’s definitely a young person’s industry,” said 39-year-old Cara Kaye, who has worked in sales and marketing.
Kaye is still employed part-time, but took the nabs ripe program as a precautionary measure, because, she says, she can see the writing on the wall and knows her time in the role is limited.
“I’m going to be working for another 25, 30 years,” she said, “so I’m thinking about something that you can kind of grow into. With the industry I am currently in, I don’t see that happening. People get phased out.”
Nikki Milligan, 44, was employed until last November as a creative services director at a Toronto advertising firm. She figures the average age of the firm’s 150 employees was around 28.
“I felt old. In the agency I was in, I definitely was not a cool kid,” she said.
After taking the nabs ripe course, Milligan was inspired to break free of ad agency life and is now running a coffee subscription business out of her home and doing freelance work.
‘Grey hairs mean more value’
After several months spent searching for a full-time job, McPherson is starting to look outside the advertising industry for work, and has even considered making a radical career change to become a welder.
He’s concerned about the future of the industry he was once a part of, and is worried that getting rid of older workers will come at a cost.
“Your quality of work goes down, your experience goes down, the expertise — there’s a lot of knowledge [lost],” he said.
“You learn more from your mistakes than you learn from your successes. And now you’ve got an industry full of mistakes just waiting to happen again.”
Knox shares those concerns. He’d like to see agencies and clients recognize the tremendous benefit of retaining experienced, older workers, as other professions do.
“When you go into service sectors like law and consultancy, actually, the grey hairs mean more value,” he said.
“We’ve been arguing that with clients across the globe: that that’s exactly what we need to see in our sector. It’s just taking us time to get to that point.”